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A Memory Project Recreates How Residents of a Wildlife Sanctuary Remember their Forests

How do residents of protected areas relate to and remember their forests, and what are the changes they perceive over time? Protected areas like wildlife sanctuaries are mainly thought about in terms of biodiversity. There is little focus on the time and memory component of these areas. A writer and an illustrator record memories and re-create visual imagery of the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh.


We thank the Ravi Sankaran Inlaks Foundation, Shergaon Forest Division, Rupa Village Council and Singchung Village Council for their tremendous support and help. Recollecting memories of the past with the Buguns, Shertukpens and Nepalis have given us memories of a lifetime. Saying thank you to Millo Tasser, Bharat Singh Hada, Pema Mosobi, RD Thongdok, DK Thongdok, Indi Glow, Tilli Glow, Sange Norbu Phiang, Sang Norbu Sarai, Umesh Srinivasan, Chamu Rai and others, is just not enough. 



How do residents of protected areas remember their forests? While spatial knowledge about wildlife sanctuaries remains better known and acted upon, there is little knowledge about the time and memory component of areas such as the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary (EWS) in Arunachal Pradesh. EWS was declared a protected area on 18 October, 1989 but the Shertukpen tribe considers it to be a part of their community lands, through which they would move to the plains of Assam on their annual winter migrations to barter goods. With better road networks, their annual migrations to the plains are no longer for economic purposes but to try and retain cultural bonds.

Spanning an area of 217 km2, the sanctuary was formed by bifurcating the Doimara Reserve Forest. The communities that live around the EWS are mainly the Shertukpens, Buguns and Nepalis who have settled in the area over a few generations and mainly carry out agriculture. Many of these residents have now shifted to growing cash crops such as tomatoes.

Protected areas are the basis of environmental governance worldwide and were originally set up to safeguard biodiversity (Watson et al. 2014). The EWS and the surrounding community forests have been important sites for discovering species. The sanctuary has been equally important for large-bodied species which are hunted (Velho et al. 2016), and for smaller species which have been newly discovered to science (Sondhi and Ohler 2011).

The most iconic discovery from the community-managed forests around the EWS was that of the Bugun Liocichla, the first bird species to be described after India’s independence (Athreya 2006). Centred on the Bugun Liocichla and other bird species in and around the EWS has emerged a nature-based tourism initiative and a newly declared Community Reserve. With ongoing research, the spatial importance of the area for biodiversity is slowly being unraveled.

Questions regarding how residents relate to their forests are important as they unravel cultural and other value systems which are equally important as a non-utilitarian biodiversity conservation strategy (Harmon and Putney 2003) and that may complement existing conservation efforts in the area.

Memory projects are one way of revealing missing links to a protected area’s emotional and personal history. Similar projects have been initiated about important periods of history like the ones about the holocaust and the partition between India and Pakistan. These portals have recreated important information through first hand personal narratives.

In the area in and around the EWS in West Kameng district, we interviewed residents from different communities about their role in the community, the time they have lived in the area and their knowledge about areas within and outside the EWS. Working with a graphic artist and illustrator these interviews were interpreted and translated into detailed drawings that broadly represent customs, landscapes and historical sites of the past as people’s representations of their area. By stitching together architectural remnants or visual imprints in the landscape with people’s descriptions of the same, our aim is to re-create visual imagery and narratives with respect to how residents remember these forests.







Study Area and Methods

Our study period was between 1 October 2015 to 20 May 2016, which included data collection, sketching, and sharing our results with the community. Our data collection was based in and around the EWS in West Kameng district. This protected area is based in the Eastern Himalaya Biodiversity Hotspot and forms the centre-piece of the Kameng Protected Area Complex. On a scale of 1,000 km2 this region may contain the second-highest biodiversity in the world, after the northern Andes (Price 2012).  

Yet not much is known about the resident communities that live here and how they relate to the wildlife and this protected area (Velho et al. 2015). The aim of this study was to recreate the missing links of EWS’s history through important events that took place during the last 60-70 years.

From the outset, this was not meant to be a go-to repository for factual information. We wanted to create memorabilia and visual artifacts that span important memories related to this general area. As with any re-constructions through oral histories, there are bound to be discrepancies with data that is based on recall. But in trying to weave together a greater context and background of these forests, we have tried to make this as factual, consultative and experiential as possible.

We went to people’s houses where we introduced our work with a few sketches that we had made of the area and also shared information on what our expected outcomes would be. We spent a lot of time talking about places, the different ways people related to them and about change. We also trekked to important sites with our interviewees.  These included sites which were part of the annual migration that used to happen in and around EWS. This “walking and talking” approach has been used to capture and communicate memories of urban spaces and has been a particularly useful tool for “in the moment” recollections of occurrences (Adams and Larkham, 2015).

We visited all interviewees together. While one took detailed notes, another sketched memories based on people’s descriptions. Often, people contributed baseline sketches which were worked upon and/or descriptions given to us were integrated into the drawing. We interpreted these interviews and translated them into drawings that try to interpret the landscape, events and historical sites of the past. This approach of “drawing landscapes back to lifehas been used to bring towns like Colorado and Budapest to life, once bustling trade towns which died away due to a shift in trade routes.

The process led to discussions which sometimes led to multiple visits to the same people spread across several days, although the average length per interview was about an hour. We refined information by again meeting interested people for informal discussions or for sharing the written transcripts and drawings with them. We also visited important sites and landmarks in the villages such as old trees where religious ceremonies are performed, traditional fishing methods, Buddhist monasteries, schools, old-houses, museums and attics. We noted information on locally made handicrafts, food habits, clothes and dresses, old architectural styles, festivals, and recollections of the past which were related to important sites and events in and around EWS. This was complimented with access to government records, old reports, photographs and press clippings.





Based on the study, we created the Eaglenest memory project web portal which is structured area-wise (Singchung, Tenga, Ramalingam, Alubari, Lama Camp, Rupa, Thungre and Eaglenest), followed by visual representations from each interview, and the primary memory shared by the respondent.

For the purpose of this article and a more comprehensive narrative about the area, the recollections of the past were mainly related to four themes. These were timber operations, the Indo-China 1962 war, the visits of the Dalai Lama to the area and besmeh (the winter migration of Shertukpens from Rupa in Arunachal to the plains of Assam).


Timber operations



Pulling logs called dhulai in Nepali before the Supreme court ban on logging in 1996. Credit: Anjora Noronha


Large-scale logging operations took place in the area before the Supreme Court ban in 1996. Trees were harvested depending on the volume sanctioned to people by the Department Timber Operation plan. Residents were entitled to roughly 300 cubic feet of timber per year. Beneficiaries either sold their permit to sawmills or supplied the timber to saw mills.

Some parts within the EWS (between Sunderview to Chaku) were free of logging because of the lack of perennial water sources. Species like Michelia champaca, Cupressus japonica, Schima wallichii and Pinus wallichiana were heavily exploited and had very large girths. Residents stated that abundances of logged species such as Michelia champaca and Cupressus japonica had decreased drastically in recent times and Pinus wallichiana occurs in mono-dominant stands in the higher-reaches that are recovering from logging. The work force for logging  mainly comprised of persons of Nepali origin while the contractors were from the Bugun and Shertukpen tribe. The workforce pulled logs with straps across their shoulders for as far as five kilometers in the rugged and mountainous terrain (Fig 1). At logging camps they would chop these logs into planks and posts. Usually, trucks would collect these logs, planks and posts to deposit them at logging depots. There are signs of old logging trails which are now used as trekking and walking paths by tourists and residents in and around EWS.


Indo-China 1962 war




 Recollection of Chaku inside Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary before the 1962 Indo-China war. Credit: Anjora Noronha



Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary had got its name from the Red Eagle Division, or the 4th Infantry Division, which used the area during the 1962 war. Residents remember fleeing through what is now EWS (it was declared as a wildlife sanctuary much later on the 18th of October, 1989) to the plains of Assam. They reported knowing three different routes through the protected area to go down to the plains of Assam (Shergaon nallah, Thungre to Chaku, and the Foothills Chaku Tenga (FCT) road). During the 1962 war, the Indian army seemed only to be aware of the FCT road.


The battle of Chaku which took place in the heart of EWS happened on the 20 November 1962. Chaku was an important point on the FCT road. This was the only road in western Arunachal Pradesh that connected the plains of Assam to the mountains of Arunachal. At Chaku there was a check gate, army barracks, shops for supplies, horse stables and much more (Fig 2). The Chinese ambushed a supply column and Indian resistance was broken completely during this battle. Fleeing Residents who had fled reported seeing many bodies of soldiers, guns and ammunition boots strewn across the protected area. Some remember carrying Indian soldiers on their mules and ponies so that they could seek medical treatment in the plains of Assam. A day after the battle of Chaku, the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire.

Not knowing what to expect, people stayed in refugee and relief camps in Assam. They narrated varied experiences: a mother gave birth in a refugee camp; the conditions in the relief camp  improved after the visit of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru; people worked as daily wage labourers and that most longed to go back home.

Several changes came about in the vicinity of their homes after the war. Defense infrastructure was developed. Land was given to the Indian army by the Buguns and Shertukpen tribes but they feel adequate compensation was not given to them for their land. They are now negotiating compensation for these areas. The army base in Tenga is one of the nine places where Nehru’s ashes are kept in India, with this memorial being the eastern most limit of his ashes.

After the 1962 war, people from the area were recruited into the army. Several members of the Shertukpen tribe living around the EWS were recruited into the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB). A retired SSB member, on being sent to the mainland for the first time, remembers that nilgai (blue cow) and cheetal (spotted deer), which were not found in forests around the EWS, were common in Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh. A few things were completely new to him: that women covered their faces, that cows were stall fed and people ate bajra rotis.


Road Expansion

An elephant giving birth on the FCT road during the inspection committee's visit. Credit: Anjora Noronha


Several people related stories about road expansion in and around the EWS. During the 1962 war, the Foothill-Chaku-Tenga (FCT) road, which passes through Eaglenest, was the only motorable road which provided access to the Assam. The FCT road was built by Road Construction Company platoon of the Indian army and Chaku was named after a South Indian engineer. As we spoke to people, the way Chaku is spelt varied a lot; but Chacko also happens to be a common Malyali surname.

In the 1990s Chaku was in the news as it was India’s most remote polling station (5 Chaku IB polling station had 2 males and 1 female on the voting list in 1992). The FCT road was maintained by the Public Works Department. Residents recounted the elaborate arrangements that were made for voters inside the EWS. The road from Bhalukpong to Tawang road was completed in 1966 and this alternate route (unlike the FCT) didn’t pass through the EWS. Many years later, the Border Road Task Force (BRTF) sought permission for the FCT road to be widened from 9 to 24 m in width.

A news report on the NDTV website (Deforestation threatens AP forests, by Bano Haralu on 8 April 2002) highlighted the illegalities related to tree felling and road widening before permission was granted. The Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife held a meeting on the 25 August 2004 and decided that an expert team examine the matter of the FCT road widening. On the 7 December 2004, the expert team visited the whole length of the FCT road. The team ended up experiencing a road-block for a few hours, and they watched as an elephant mother gave birth on the FCT road (Tana Tapi pers comm, part of the expert team).

 A resident remembers how a member of the expert team went on a motorcycle to survey the Orang-Kalakthang-Shergaon-Rupa-Tenga (OKSRT) road, which was then proposed as an alternate to the FCT road. This road is completed and the FCT road (which was not granted road widening permission) is now only used by nature-based tourists and residents from the area.


The Dalai Lama


Memories of the war and FCT road were inextricably linked to the Dalai Lama visiting the area. The 14th Dalai Lama fled from Tibet on the 17 March 1959. He was in Arunachal Pradesh from 31 March to 18 April 1959. He was received in Tawang and when word spread, reporters from around the world waited for him to come down to Assam to document this important event in history. He passed through the EWS to go down to the plains of Assam. It was the same year he made it to the cover of the Time magazine, but a different kind of history was being made for EWS and the surrounding areas.

Respondents remember coming from the surrounding villages and towns waiting to receive the Dalai Lama. A dak runner (mail carrier) from the Bugun community remembers being in Chaku, where the Dalai Lama and has entourage had stopped over for lunch halting along the FCT road inside EWS. This dak runner Kaibo Phiang (Fig 3a,b) was the village head priest when the Dalai Lama visited Singchung village in 1997.  Some residents of Singchung remember Dalai Lama’s reception with pride. They had relatively few government officers but Lama’s visit went smoothly.


 Kaibo Phiang was the head Village priest when the Bugun tribe of Singchung stopped animal sacrifice. Credit: Anjora Noronha



It was a few years later, partly influenced by the Dalai Lama’s teachings, that the Buguns stopped sacrificing animals during animistic festivals. Now during Diying kho puja which venerates the river, a white goat is not sacrificed but symbolically marked with vermillion powder and set free. Many Buguns reported that with the increasing influence of Buddhism (which dates to before the Dalai Lama’s visit) hunting of wild animals has significantly decreased too.   


The pujari’s kit (called Rachhai in Bugun) was a tablet comprising hornbill beaks, carnivore skulls, eagle talons.





EWS and its surrounding places are important to the Shertukpen tribe (from Rupa and Thungree) as every winter they used the area to migrate down to the plains of Assam (Fig 4). They would spend two to three months in the foothills of Assam. There are sites within and around the EWS which are culturally important to them. Among these are natural rock formations that resemble an elephant and calf, a rock against which the Shertukpens would measure their height every year, “the stone of love” where couples or youngsters sought blessings for a happy life together, the broken down house of merchant Sangpo Norbu Zangpu’s descendants.

The Shertukpens traded maize and Sichuan peppers in exchange for rice and Assamese silk from the Bodos. They used the calls of the large-hawk cuckoo (called Pem peyor in the Shertukpen language), Indian cuckoo (Doko plenko) and Green-backed tit (Si-bin-bin), and the size of oak leaves as cues to help them go back to their homes in the hills in Rupa.

The traditional migratory route of the Shertukpens of Rupa that passed through EWS.


With the advent of cars, and now that mules and ponies are not kept anymore, the tradition of besmeh has been largely discontinued. Wood-based heaters, jackets and blankets make the Rupa winters bearable and people no longer need to spend winters in the Assam plains. Moreover, ethno-civil strife for Bodoland coupled with militancy has resulted in Shertukpens spending less time in Assam than they used to.

A few people felt that reviving the old FCT road connectivity especially in the foothills area of Assam would increase the chance of illegal logging within the EWS. Many people from different areas have settled down in these areas and do not relate to the Shertukpen-Bodo customs of the past. However, the Bodos and Shertukpens who had old ties with each other still try and visit each other to reinforce these symbolic bonds.




Commemoration and recollections have layered importance. Commemoration is a way of knowledge management and provides a setting for organisational life (Cutcher et al. 2016).. These concepts have been further taken to show that memories of individuals can be integrated to remember the social, collective, embodied and contextual factors of people and places (Cutcher et al. 2016). For example in our study, the life and transitions made by Kaibo Phiang, the village head priest of Singchung, is also a metaphor of the social and collective changes that the Bugun community has made with respect to animal sacrifice as a result of the influence of Buddhism and contextual factors such as the Dalai Lama’s exile from Tibet and his multiple visits to the area.

These memories and associations may have a larger societal influence. The eco-cultural identity of tribes from the hill states of north-east has been explored as the relationship between their language, food, festivals and ceremonies with their agricultural calendars (Ramakrishnan et al. 2005). We expand upon this concept in the region to show that forests and protected areas may also be factors that play a part in forming an eco-cultural identity of tribes. These forests may not only be important from a utilitarian point of view but the landscape may also have a cultural value. Other studies have also shown that in addition to food, nature can provide rushes of meaning and memory (Gold and Gujar 2002).

These intangible benefits of biodiversity are important. Cultural anthropologists have recognised that these intangible values of biodiversity are rooted in cultural, spiritual and religious influences which could be incorporated into sustainable biodiversity conservation strategies (Harmon and Putney 2003).

We find that memories and associations of people vary greatly even around such a small area. For example the Bugun tribe may have a stronger association with forests around the EWS while the Shertukpen tribe (especially those from Rupa and Thungre) may have important memories, artifacts and memorabilia that exist within the EWS. A common thread is the spiritual and religious belief systems of Buddhism which are practiced by the Buguns and Shertukpens, although they have different animistic festivals that are embedded within these. Understanding these shades of culture and their varying relationships with forests might be useful in tailoring more targeted conservation strategies around the EWS.

Our work is a starting point for this area and provides a synthesis from a snapshot of time. In the future, these memories might be subject to change, depending on how institutions such as the forest department and village councils mediate on issues related to the EWS, and on the lived problems that the area will face locally (Radstone and Hodgkin 2003). At this point, however, we hope that the information presented here gives a more nuanced view of how changes in forests and memories can be represented around India’s protected areas.





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Updated On : 24th Apr, 2017
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